Blog readers love actionable articles! Break it into steps! They want lists! Put numbers in your title!
It’s likely that you’ve read (and internalized) these tips over the course of your guest blogging career, only to have your “10 Ways to Prepare your HVAC System for Gurnenthar's Ascendance” either ignored or outright rejected by high-quality sites. While we’ve all benefitted from content like this, well, we’ve already benefitted from content like this—it’s been done before.
Writing clearly is not enough on its own. The writer must be creatively invested in the piece so it sounds authentic.
Remember, rewarding you with your link is likely not the primary concern of any website. They are more concerned about your ideas and how you present them. Publishing on these sites has more to do with your mindset than whether you’ve broken down your piece into action steps. When I write guest posts, I think like a writer.
How do writers think? Good writers:
1. Know why they write
2. Write for a complex, human audience and client
3. Read to develop an awareness of voice and habits
4. Sincerely engage with their target publications
Thinking like a writer requires reflection which leads to the kind of authenticity that is both desirable and impossible to fake. David Amerland said it best: semantic search rewards authenticity. Engage in practices that encourage authenticity to gussy up your content for 2014.
Why I Write
Take a second and think about it: Why do you write?
If your answer is “to build links for my client or site,” you’re not thinking hard enough. Why do you write? What drives you to express yourself through language? What do you find enjoyable about writing?
In her essay “Why I Write,” Joan Didion states that she writes “entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” For Didion, writing is a process of discovery, and each essay or novel is a record of its own making. She is also aware that “writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.”
This is not unlike the reason I write: I write to make what I identify as my “self” legible and therefore graspable. I write as an attempt to resolve what I feel is paradoxical about my beliefs, my interests, and my thoughts. Language gives us the ability to have momentary resolution and to feel (perhaps falsely) understood.
Genuine writing that resolves a tension appeals to readers universally because we recognize that struggle within it in ourselves. No matter what the content is about, the form reflects the familiar process of trying to express and make sense of our thoughts. When writing a guest post, be aware of what it is that you are trying to discover.
I bring my reasons for writing to the page every time I sit down to write a guest post. Even this post is resolving something for me: how does my academic training as a writer and poet inform my work writing blog posts for an internet marketing company?
Complex Writer, Complex Audience
Having an awareness of why you write is even more essential when you’re not writing for your own pleasure. It can be too easy to write disengaged, inauthentic content on behalf of a client because we’re not legitimately interested in what they offer. We don’t assume that our clients—or the audience that could be interested in their products— are as complex as we are.
However, if we lend our reason for writing and some of our own curiosities to guest posts we write for our clients, we can become authentically engaged. Say you’re writing for a company that sells stylish mom jeans. It will seem natural to write posts that are fashion tips for mothers (which you can’t remain silent about because mom jeans are usually horrible and it’s your job to fix this fashion faux pas.) This is great, but if it’s all you write, you’re going to run out of ideas really quickly.
This is where you want to assume that your audience is as complex as you are. In the case of the mom jeans client, I would introduce my interest in gender studies. Feminists wear jeans as much as the rest of the population, yet the relationship between fashion and feminism has barely been broached by mommy blogs or feminist blogs. On a superficial level, these topics seem antithetical: “fashion” is associated with a vain, hairless kind of femininity, whereas “feminism” is frequently associated with brains and armpit hair.
This combination of unlikely topics not only creates a paradox to resolve throughout your article, but also expands the potential audience for your piece and allows you to engage with a topic that genuinely interests you.
Read like a Writer
In my creative writing capstone my senior year of college, we were assigned to read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, in which she attempts to discover “how writers learn to do something that cannot be taught.” Mostly, she advises that wannabe writers read slowly, to pay attention to how writers use language, syntax, punctuation. “All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another.”
When you read a target publication, aim to read it slowly—read every word. Pay attention to the decisions that the writers make. Aim to be able to describe the blog’s voice or style, and figure out how to match it (or whether your own voice would fit in seamlessly.)
You can gain an awareness of your own voice by reading your own work like a writer. Learn what words you love and what structures you habitually use. I know I have a weakness for the word “still” and off-rhyming adverbs. I love the em-dash more than Emily Dickinson. I know what makes me sound like me, and thus, how to make my writing sound less like me but still intentional.
As SEOs, we’ve been taught to be aware of our keyword and keyword phrase usage as we write content. There’s even an app that shows us our keyword density. Fluid prose involves varied vocabulary and sentence structure. This tool unfortunately doesn’t measure adjective or adverb density, but once you know your habits, it doesn’t take longer than a minute to hit “ctrl +f” to discover how many times you’ve used certain words and to adjust them accordingly.
Reaching your Targets
These concepts apply to writing outreach, too. A wise man once told me that you need to “sound sincere” in your outreach emails, but I always take it a step further—you need to be sincere. Quality of outreach will always trump the quantity of outreach, especially when it comes to high-quality sites.
Be sure to read your target site like a writer. Ask:
· What kind of writing does it feature?
· How does this writing sound?
· What topics has this site covered that interest you?
· What hasn’t this site covered that resonate with your reasons for writing or your interests?
Then, in your email, let them know what you’ve been thinking about (your pitch) and how that relates to their blog and the content they’ve already published. If you allow ideas and content to be your concern—if, as Ken McGaffin suggests here, you “think first, link later,” the blog owner is less likely to question whether your link is valuable or not, given that your post is inventive, relevant, and well-written. Your ideas will add value to their site.
Another word of advice on outreach: err on the side of specific when pitching topics. If there’s one piece of advice I took to heart in college, it was that two kinds of papers get good grades: those that are well-written and those that attempt to argue a specific, interesting thesis. You wanted your paper theses to be “just right”—not to broad, yet also not too narrow. This also applies to successful guest posting.
If we go back to our hypothetical mom jeans client, you could pitch “What Celebrity Moms Wear to Shop” but which celebrity moms? What is your definition of “celebrity?” “Oscar Winner Moms Caught Shopping in Jeans!” tells your target which celebrities, where, and what they have in common. If this were a local universe client, you could tag on an “in Los Angeles,” but that may make the topic too narrow for a site that aims to focus on celebrities everywhere.
Writing clear, actionable content isn’t good enough for high-quality sites; they want authenticity. Authenticity comes as a result of thinking like a writer. Consider:
1. What is my reason for writing? How can I bring this reason to my content?
2. Have I considered how my client can be as complex as I am? Am I writing for a complex audience?
3. Am I reading every word of my article? What are my writing habits?
4. Am I reading my target sites like a writer? Can I describe characteristics of their voices?
5. Is this topic specific enough to add something new to the conversation on my target site?
For this article, I know:
1. I write to attempt to resolve paradox, and I bring that to this article by trying to figure out how my training as poet applies to internet marketing.
2. I know that link builders are an educated bunch that likely enjoyed their liberal arts courses through college—I assume that my audience attempts to intellectually engage with their work.
3. I’ve used the em-dash 7 times in this article—no, wait, 8.
4. From where I sit, this piece has the same conversational tone that we aim for on the Page One Power blog.
5. It also isn’t the same set of guest blogging tips that has appeared on this or any other blog, so help me Google.
So next time you’re charged with generating the perfect content for a difficult niche, take a moment to think like a writer. You may not win any awards for the most sites outreached per hour, but you will gain an opportunity to build links that matter.